I’m a total junkie when it comes to gender-bending Kdramas, so I was shocked at how negative my initial reaction was to the new drama short Ma Boy, in which a boy pretends to be a girl.
I haven’t gotten around to watching the show yet, but something about the promotional materials really squicks me out. Is it because the male lead looks so masculine, in spite of his flowing locks and flirty schoolgirl uniform? Is it because he doesn’t look masculine enough, and instead falls into the uncanny valley between genders? Or is it just because boys pretending to be girls on screen tend to do so in the name of comedy, while girls pretending to be boys generally explore issues of identity and liberation from the established social order? It’s the difference between Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire and Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry: one is amusing, madcap slapstick, and the other is a wrenching portrait of the little boxes people are trapped in by the expectations of others.
I think this distinction is rooted in the ugliest aspect of our understanding of traditional gender roles: Men are defined by self-determination, power, and control, while women are defined by how they look and the quality of their relationships with men. When a girl pretends to be a boy, she inherits all the rights and privileges inherent to that gender, which makes great fodder for storytelling. On the other hand, when a boy pretends to be a girl, he’s taking a step down the ladder of social hierarchy, and his sphere of influence shrinks from the whole of human endeavor to the constricting circle home and hearth. The tone of gender-swapping dramas is set by the things their characters stand to gain through their deceptions: Girls pretending to be boys attain freedom, while boys pretending to be girls are gifted with mascara and impractical footwear.
And speaking of impractical footwear: femininity in Korean drama is almost always a carefully studied performance, not a physical state of being. It requires both specific props (like lipstick, designer purses, and indecently short skirts) and specific dialogue (including whimpers of “Ottokae” and “Oppa”). When a woman pretends to be man, these things are stripped away—the hair, the make-up, the frilly dresses. In its very nature, pretending to be a boy is an act of exposure, of nakedness against the world, which is why it so often leads to thoughtful, introspective dramas. But playing a girl (whatever your gender) requires the drag-queen-ish addition of female-specific items and rituals, leading to lots of jokes about underwear and the horrors of high heels.
Take the heroine of Coffee Prince, my favorite of the gender-swap Kdramas. Although Eun Chan never sets out to live as a boy, at their first meeting the show’s male lead assumes that she must be a guy. She doesn’t “perform” femininity like the other women he knows: she has a low-maintenance haircut and wears clothes designed to be practical, not girlie. From Han Gyul’s perspective, how could Eun Chan be a girl, when she isn’t defined by her chic wardrobe and willingness to bat her eyelashes to ensnare a man? As their relationship grows, skin-deep markers of womanhood aren’t what he comes to appreciate about Eun Chan. Instead he sees her as an equal, an ally, and finds in her in her all the noble traits traditionally associated with masculinity: she’s strong and capable and brave. Throughout Coffee Prince, Eun Chan is too busy being herself to be a Kdrama drag queen—which is exactly why Han Gyul and I love her so much.
It’s true that not all girls pretending to be boys are the focus of thoughtful dramas that explore the meaning of gender and identity in the modern world. The Beautifuls come to mind here, in particular—as fun as they are, the female leads of You’re Beautiful and To the Beautiful You gain very little from their gender-bending. Sure, they get behind-the-velvet rope admission into the clubby world of men, but what do they do with it? Jae Hee, To the Beautiful You’s female lead, seems to spend most of her time doing laundry, making snacks, and standing behind her man—she’s acting more like a mom than a boy. Still, their shows don’t exist solely to mock them. The same can’t be said for most men pretending to be women.
|I Do, I Do: “But I see real girls doing this all the time!”|
Two of this year’s urban rom-coms included unexpected moments of male cross-dressing, both inspired very specifically by the male characters’ need to create products for women. I Do, I Do’s apprentice shoe-designer thinks his skills will be improved by knowing what it’s like to wear high heels; 12 Men in a Year’s famous novelist wants to gain insight into his female characters. Although both characters are well-meaning, their distaff experiments are played for laughs, and their costumes—big, cartoony women’s clothing and Ringling-Brothers-ready makeup jobs—fool no one.
That men would pretend to be women is a logical extension of the Kdrama tradition of gender-bending. As far as entertainment value goes, I’m not crazy about this fad, but just the fact that it exists indicates that people are really thinking about what gender means in our lives and our world. And that’s a good thing.
Cross-dressing Kdrama Girls
Painter of the Wind, Moon Geun Young as Shin Yoon Bok
There were times in the course of this show when I forgot its main character was a girl. This is at least partially because it was the first drama I’d seen Moon Geun Young in, but beyond my lack of familiarity with the actress her overall demeanor and utter lack of girlie embellishment totally worked as a boy. And while she’s a compelling screen presence and has an interesting look, Moon Geun Young isn’t really a beauty—which actually comes in handy when you’re playing a girl pretending to be a boy while wearing unforgiving sageuk headgear. Grade A
Coffee Prince, Yoon Eun Hye as Go Eun Chan
Having starred as an ultra-feminine princess in the drama Goong the year before Coffee Prince aired, Eun Yoon Hye had some serious challenges to overcome with her portrayal of Go Eun Chan. And overcome them she did, turning in a charmingly loose-limbed, open-hearted performance utterly devoid of any form of vanity. Her physical presence as Go Eun Chan was a revelation—gangly and slouching, she really seemed to be a different person, who might actually pass as a boy. Grade A
To the Beautiful You, Choi Seol Ri as Goo Jae Hee
This show’s greatest gift to lead actress Choi Seol Ri is that it’s set in high school—a time before testosterone really kicks in and when a lot of actual boys look pretty girlish. With an appropriately masculine (but still cute) haircut and wardrobe, her baby-faced prettiness is not so far beyond the realm of possibility for a 15-year-old boy. As an added bonus, the script gamely hands her specific opportunities to convey boyishness, most notably when she dressed as a girl in episode 4 and nearly flashed half of Seoul before she remembered that skirts require their wearers to sit with their legs closed. The jury is still out on this one, but let’s give it an optimistic Grade C+
Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Park Min Young as Kim Yoon Hee
When most of the male characters in your drama wear what amount to flowing, hot-pink dresses, masculinity can be safely judged on a sliding scale. Park Min Young lowered her voice a pitch or two and brought to the role of Kim Yoon Hee a prickly energy and puffed-out chest. But while her cute-as-a-button face is the stuff of Pixar’s wet dreams, it ensures that she’ll never play a believable boy. (All that lip gloss didn’t help, either.) Grade C
You’re Beautiful: Park Shin Hye as Go Mi Nam
How do you know Park Shin Hye’s character is only pretending to be a boy in this show? She uses slightly less hair gel and wears slightly less make-up than her male counterparts. When you’re a post-Bowie rock star, gender-bending tendencies almost go without saying. But with a ladylike wardrobe and script that offered nothing more than vapid airheadedness (no matter what gender she was playing), Park Shin Hye was out of luck. Grade D